Chapter 7: The side-show in the South Western Sector



The border south of the plains of Punjab runs for 1300 km till it reaches the Arabian Sea. It skirts the Thar desert and the tail end of which touches the Rann of Kutch. The area is generally referred to as the South-Western sector. The South Western Air Command (SWAC) of today is responsible for providing air cover to the whole of Gujarat and Rajasthan. It is the second most important command in the Air Force next only to the Western Air Command (WAC) in order of operational importance.

Today, aircraft like the MiG-27ML, MiG-23BM, Jaguar and the old-faithful - MiG-21s - are a familiar sight in the desert skies. These aircraft operate from bases like Uttarlai, Jodhpur, Nal, Jamnagar and Bhuj. As per strategists of the sub-continent are concerned, this is the sector to watch, as the only major moves and gains are going to be in this sector and SWAC is equipped to cope up and oppose any Pakistani counter-offensive in the area.

But before 1981, the year in which SWAC was formed, Rajasthan and Gujarat was merely an operational responsibility of WAC. No separate command was deemed necessary for this sector and even in 1965, the situation was little different. WAC was responsible for covering the entire border from Ladakh to the Rann of Kutch. The backbone of WAC's air defence network lied in the airbases of Punjab. The South Western Sector having been accorded low priority.

The South-Western Sector

As it is supposed to be very less or virtually no activity was predicted to take place here. WAC had to deal with two Army Commands. Besides the Western Command under Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh, the Western Air Command also had to cater to the Southern Command in charge of Army Operations in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Southern Command was then led by Lt. Gen. Moti Sagar, who had only one Army Division under him. There were some police forces to deal with any incursions, the Pakistanis were to make. The actions fought in this sector were comparatively minor. The forces involved were small. The desert offered very larges amount of space for maneuver and even with many operational air bases, the IAF would have been hard put to keep the area under surveillance.

There were only two AFBs in the South-Western Sector in 1965, Jodhpur in Rajasthan and Jamnagar in Gujarat, both home to training establishments. Jodhpur had the Air Force Flying College, the cradle of would be fighter pilots, who had Harvard trainers and Jamnagar was home to the Armament Training Wing, with a few Vampire fighters and a firing range to practice air-to-ground gunnery and a couple of Dakotas to tow drogue chutes for targets in air-to-air firing.

The Pakistani Air Force, across the border in this sector, was concentrated at the PAF base of Mauripur, from which F-86s and B-57s operated. To support the aircraft from Mauripur, the Pakistanis also had a Signals & Radar Unit at Badin. This was the equivalent of the Radar Unit at Amritsar. Badin formed the backbone of the PAF's air defence network by providing Air Defence Control. It was well protected with anti-aircraft guns.

The early adventure by Pakistan in the Kutch Sector prior to the war should have alerted the Air Force regarding the dangers of neglecting the offensive & support capabilities of the Air Force in this sector. When the Kutch incursion took place, only some PR Vampires were operated for recce purposes. Culminating in Utpal Barbara's evidence clinching flight on the April 24th.

However even after the incursion, neither the Air Force nor the Army planned for further eventualities. One begins to see the traces of the famous "The Defence of the East lies in the West" doctrine of the Pakistanis here in the sense, that the defense of the South-West lies in the Punjab sector.

Immediately after the flight of the PR Vampire over the area, Pakistan deployed its fighters in the sector. Two Starfighters were flown in from Sargodha to Mauripur before flying in the Kutch region. On June 24th, two months after the Kutch incident and Barbara's flight, an Ouragan flown by Flt. Lt. Rana Lal Chand Siddha took off from Jamnagar on a training sortie.

Siddha lost his way in poor visibility and strayed into Pakistan. This fighter was tracked from Badin and Sabres scrambled to intercept the fighter. Before Siddha could realise his mistake and turn around, the Sabres had already intercepted him and fired warning shots.

Flt Lt R L Siddha's Ouragan, which force-landed in Pakistan due to poor visibility

Faced with a 50-mile flight to the border and virtually no chance against the Sabres, Siddha force-landed the Ouragan in a field in the village of Jangshahi, the rough landing tore away the undercarriage and the Ouragan came to a rest after a metal wrenching landing. Siddha was interned by the Pakistanis. India lodged a protest and demanded the return of both the pilot and the aircraft. The Pakistanis refused. Siddha was repatriated on 14th August 1965. But the Ouragan was never returned.

In spite of the events unfolding in August 1965, no measures were undertaken to reinforce or establish better interception facilities in the southern sector. When war clouds were brewing up in August, the only fighters worth their name in Jamnagar were nine Sea Hawk fighters and a Vampire trainer of the Indian Navy's No.300 White Tigers Squadron.

Normally the Sea Hawks were either based at Dabolim (Goa) or onboard the INS Vikrant, the aircraft carrier. But since the Vikrant was undergoing her periodic maintenance refitting at the dock, the Sea Hawks were moved to Jamnagar for their Armament Training. The other squadron on board the Vikrant, No.310 flying Alizes was based at Santa Cruz, Bombay.

When hostilities broke out in September 1965, the Sea Hawks were directly put under the command of Western Air Command. And plans had already been chalked out to employ the Sea Hawks in a strike against Badin which was to take place in the morning of September 7th. But before the strike could be executed, the planes were recalled to Santa Cruz, to provide air defence coverage for Bombay. This proved to be a mistake.

The first PAF raids in this area were on September 6th, when B-57s from Mauripur raided Jamnagar airbase. Six B-57s came at very low level in the fading light to drop bombs on the airfield. These B-57s came over using the light house at Mandovi as a navigational reference. Some of the ground installations and the Air Traffic Control Tower in Jamnagar were damaged in the raid.

At that time, Sea Hawks of the No.300 White Tigers Squadron were strung out around the airfield, but luckily escaped damaged due to the good dispersal of the aircraft. This raid was followed by two more raids that night. In the three attacks Jamnagar faced on that particular night, A-A fire managed to bring down one of the B-57s. The wreckage and bodies of the crew members were recovered the next day. Another target attacked was Porbundhar, which was suspected to house a radar station. This strike was called off.

The next day passed off uneventfully. It was that night that the Pakistani Navy (PN) struck. Around midnight Pakistani Naval ships sneaked up to the coast of Dwaraka about 100 km from Jamnagar and shelled the harbour, port and coastal installations. The task force consisted of the cruiser, PNS Babur.

The Pakistani mistakenly believed that Dwaraka housed an AEW radar with Huff/Duff beacons to guide Indian Bombers. The only Indian Naval ship in the vicinity was the INS Talwar, which was anchored off Okha under the command of Commander Dharweshwar.

The ship intercepted W/T messages at around 2200 hrs and assumed it was going to be the target and sounded actions stations. However the Pakistani fleet seemed to move onto other targets. Around 0015 hrs on the night of September 7/8th, the PN task force opened fire and around 50 six-inch shells landed in Dwarka over a period of 30 minutes. Most of the shells did not explode, and to accompany the din of the main armament, the Pakistanis erroneously identified aircraft in the air and fired their A-A armament too. An aircraft was claimed to have been shot down, though how this aircraft was identified is not clear.

There is no doubt that India was caught unawares by the shelling of Dwarka in the middle of the night. But clearly the Pakistanis were misleading themselves in believing they were under air attack. The PN Task Force steamed back to Karachi even before the Indian Navy could give chase. The failure of INS Talwar to sail forth and engage the enemy had a telling effect on the ship's Captain, who brooded for a long time to come on the missed opportunity.

The Dwarka shelling infuriated many Naval Officers and in ways their pride was affected for some days to come. There is little doubt that if the Sea Hawks from Jamnagar carried out regular recce sorties over the seas, it could have deterred the Pakistani Navy. Though the Sea Hawks would have a slim chance against the PAF Sabres. At the dawn of September 8th, an Alize from Bombay carried out a recce sortie, but failed to contact the PN Task Force. This was the last air action from the Naval Air Arm.

Meanwhile in the desert, the ground offensive of the Southern Command got underway. The 11 Inf. Div., under Major General N.C. Rawlley, advanced in the Gadra Bulge and captured Gadra Town. They were opposed only by Pakistani Rangers. However this move attracted lot of PAF attacks against them. On September 9th, Sabres raided Gadra Road, the base from which the offensive started, many times.

Gadra road received 9 Sabre sorties on September 9th. In one of these, the pumping station and a railway goods train were hit, killing 10 railway employees and injuring 17 more. The same day, Jodhpur was the target of an early morning raid by four B-57s from Mauripur. The airfield was attacked but little damage was done. Though little damage actually occurred to IAF installations, the constant raids throughout the war disturbed the Air Force Flying College's Training Syllabus. This disruption prompted the shifting of Training Establishments further down in the south a few years later.

Jamnagar's Armament Training Wing received a visit from PAF B-57s and F-86s on the night of September 12th till the early hours of September 13th, in the course of which some 23 bombs fell in the military quarters area. Two Airmen were killed in the attacks.

Jodhpur was raided frequently and futilely. For the IAF did not have the capabilities in terms of aircraft to mount attacks from there. On the ground the Pakistani Army formations moved around, unhampered from the air. On September 16th, the Pakistanis advanced into Indian territory and occupied Munabao, a small village hardly kilometers from the border. An Indian counter-attack to eject them from Munabao was mauled badly. The absence of operational bases in Rajasthan was sorely felt.

With no combat aircraft stationed there, air defence, reconnaissance or close support to the army did not materialize. The main reason for this deficiency being the low priority given to this area in the Army's planning which undoubtedly influenced the Air Force plans.

No major operations were planned here even thought the opposing Pakistani forces were also thin. Only after the operations started, did the realisation occur. Pakistan on the other hand bought in their air force to help the ground troops quite frequently. Only towards the end of the war could some combat aircraft moved to Jodhpur. But it was too little too late.

The only air-to-air encounter here took place in the Jamnagar sector, on September 18th, between PAF Sabres and a civilian aircraft of the Gujarat State Government. This civilian aircraft was carrying Gujarat Chief Minister, Balwant Rai Mehta, his wife and several other officials.

The pilot J.M. Engineer had on his plane besides the CM and his wife, three crew members, a security guard, a personal assistant and a reporter from a local newspaper. The aircraft was on its way to reach a place called Mithapore by 1600 hrs. It never reached there. At about 1550 hours, the villages of Suthali village heard the drone of a low flying aircraft mingled with the noise of jets. They looked up to see this aircraft being chased by two Sabres. A series of staccato bursts followed and they heard a crash. The aircraft crashed between Suthali and Nalia Village, just off the coast of the Arabian Sea.

At about 1635 hrs, first reports of the crash of an unidentified aircraft reached the Bhuj control room. The Tehsildhar of Nalia and the SI sent to the crash site found a burnt ID card, belonging to the reporter. This confirmed the identity of the aircraft. There were no survivors.

Immediately questions were asked, Why did the aircraft allowed to fly in a combat zone without any escort? Why was clearance given by the IAF? Or did the aircraft proceed without the IAF's knowledge. And finally why did the PAF pilots fire on a civilian aircraft?

Wreckage of Mehta's aircraft shows bullet marks in the wings, confirming that the aircraft was hit. The encounter is confirmed by Fricker's Battle for Pakistan too.

An enquiry into the affair submitted the facts four months later. According to it, the IAF authorities at Bombay refused to let the aircraft go on the flight. When the Gujarat government pressed for clearance, the air force authorities, in an obvious attempt to get them off their backs, gave clearance for the pilot to proceed at his own risk.

J.M. Engineer was told of the clearance and took off for Mithapore. The PAF pilots firing on the aircraft was not the direct cause of the crash. Sure bullets were fired, and the aircraft was hit. It was deduced both from eyewitness accounts and by the enquiry that Engineer tried to force-land the aircraft. But either from uneven ground, or the presence of the Sabres, or the strain he was under, he lost control of the aircraft and he crashed. All the nine aboard died instantaneously.

The incident is remembered for the fact it was the first time a civilian aircraft became a target in the hostilities between the two countries and for the fact that Balwant Rai Mehta became the first Indian Politician to die on the front line due to enemy action.

On September 19th, our ground forces advanced in the Gadra Bulge up to Dali. At the time of the ceasefire, we were in occupation of 150 sq. miles of territory, as much as we gained in the Sialkot or the Lahore sectors. The Pakistani troops took some posts just across the border and claimed credit in their own inimitable way that became the subject of much discussion since then.

Vampires of No.220 Sqn saw action in this sector, after the disaster at Chamb on September 1st. These cocoon shaped fighters fitted with twin booms were employed with much caution and care. Contrary to Pakistani claims that the Vampires were withdrawn from frontline action after the first day of the war, the aircraft were used judiciously in circumstances where air opposition was not expected.

A Vampire FB.52 labelled "Pak Pattan Express" shows the list of targets that it had flown missions to. Vampires01.jpg (14496 bytes)

Thus some aircraft of No.220 Sqn flew tactical reconnaissance missions to Gadra and Naya chor to support 11th Division's advance. On 20th of September, No.45 Squadron sent its Vampires over to Arifwala, where they attacked and totaled a railway train. None of these missions encountered air opposition.

The B-57s managed to put up a consistent performance by raiding Jamnagar on September 19th and Jodhpur on September 20th at night. On both the occassions, though ack-ack fire was present, B-57s carried out their runs unscathed. Gadro was the target on September 21st. F-86 Sabres attacked the town about the same time as Wg. Cdr. Peter Wilson's Canberras were attacking Badin radar station. The PAF aircraft were returning from the strike when the Badin was alerting the PAF air defence control of the strike. But the Sabres were already low on fuel and could not be diverted.

The last raid was on September 22nd on Jodhpur. Bombs fell on the city jail, killing 30 inmates and two other staff members - one of the worst civilian casualty incidents of the war. Both the air forces never deliberately targeted civilians. It was only in the heat of the battle, that mistakes took place and by accident these civilians suffered.

The lessons of the '65 war were well imbibed by the IAF. The training facilities were moved down south and concentrated in the Hyderabad area. New bases were developed. Uttarlai and Jaisalmer AFBs were activated. Both these airfields were not permanent airfields. They were forward bases to be used only during times of war. However, no independent air command was created.

The south-western sector had to wait till 1981 for the creation of the command. And in 1971, this sector saw the bulk of the fighting and most of the kills. Aircraft from the south-western airfields claiming over 15 aircraft in the air and on ground, as opposed to the solitary B-57 in 1965.